I’ve recently read two books about decay, about modern society, about dealing with the crushing effects of the 20th century. Both written around the same time – late 70s, early 80s. Are they irrelevant today? Absolutely not, at least for my generation. I wonder if future generations will feel the same – if there will always be this sense of something lost. It’s not for me to know.
The books were “A Month of Sundays” by John Updike and “The Dean’s December” by Saul Bellow. They were quite different books, though I do feel the emotions and struggles they approached are very similar. Having read them one after the other and seeing each protagonist struggling to deal with the world around them, I couldn’t help comparing and contrasting the two works. One struck me as highly effective, the other significantly less so.
Let’s deal with Updike first. It’s my second time attempting Updike. The first was The Witches of Eastwick and I tossed it aside in disgust at its apparent misogyny. This was about ten years ago. Now, having finally completed an Updike book, I don’t think him guilty of misogyny persay. I think he had difficulty with women characters and writing a book with so many women was a bad move. He’s much more comfortable with misogynistic male characters – yet he mocks them, so the misogyny seems not his own. In any case, I felt none of that in reading A Month of Sundays. It wasn’t bad – the writing is tremendous, lion-like writing – and meant to be. It was nice that the words drew you away from the story –
Because the story was not much at all. The characters are all fed up with meaningless suburban life and so have tons of sex to cure it. Dull.
Updike’s biggest problem in this book is that you can’t tell what he himself thinks of the character. He tries to get inside this tormented preacher, who is, it seems, delusional – yet to create such a character in a readable way, there has to be some degree of sympathy from the author. I never felt this – he got excited, certainly, at some of the descriptions – but the character came across as – just a bit – dead, I suppose.
It wasn’t bad. I can see why people like Updike. The prose was powerful. If he in some novels directs such prose at something he seems actually invested in, that must be amazing. This seemed more like a classroom writing exercise a great novelist took part in. Flexing the writing muscles but without personal impulse or investment.
Bellow’s “The Dean’s December” introduces us to a character struggling in the same way that Updike’s preacher is. Both seem at times to acknowledge their crises, but miss some unifying factor – is there one? It is the same feeling of discomfort with modernity attacked in a much softer way.
The protagonist, the Dean, is at once likeable and absurd. Much of the story revolves around a series of provocative articles he has written about his home town of Chicago. His world is shocked, yet fascinated, as the seemingly mild mannered Dean goes down in tormented flame. Does he go too far, in the articles? Is he too impassioned? It seems to me the real trouble is that he is trying to interpret and judge the modern world without participating in its forms and patterns. The fury at his articles goes beyond what he says – indeed, it seems it is more his approach that is the problem. He is accused of being too poetic. Certainly, the Dean is looking in from the outside – thoroughly uncomfortable with the world he encounters, his voice sounds dated, conservative, echoing dischordantly in the ears of his readers who dutifully participate in the world as it moves along. We wonder throughout the book if he is wrong in his analysis – yet that is not the question at all, in the end.
Many of the characters are given great depth, despite the nature of the book – which follows along the Dean’s thoughts as he deals with the death of his wife’s mother in Communist Romania. His wife is certainly a fascinating character, as is the childhood friend who became a famous reporter. There are rarely true answers given with regard to character. Nothing is quite clear, which naturally feels much more real than an assertive statement of traits and motivations. These are people you feel you’ve probably met. Moreover, the book has so many shadowy corners to explore – my words here deal only one of the issues weighing on the Dean throughout. We could still explore his relationships with his wife, his nephew, his friend, his mother-in-law: each given plenty of space in the book and each providing more insight into complex people living in a complex time.
Comparing these to Updike’s characters? The flatness of Updike’s becomes even more apparent. His prose might be powerful, but Bellow creates entire worlds and leaves you with problems to wrestle with over and over again throughout your life. Bellow I will revisit; Updike will go to Goodwill.